Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hundreds Rounded up at New Bedford Factory

The war comes home, in every way. Here is a letter I wrote to the Providence Journal today about the brutal roundup of people in a neighboring city. The full story is below.
It makes me sick at heart to think my government has sunk so low as to bring about a terrifying scene like this one at a New Bedford factory that manufactures backpacks and other military gear for Iraq. Mothers fleeing their sewing machines, rounded up in the freezing cold. Unknown numbers of children not accounted for. Brutal working conditions that only workers fearing their illegal status would endure - and a company deliberately recruiting them for their ease of exploitation. A shameful war that provides orders for this equipment. And to top it off, an immigration policy that is blind to human needs and human dignity.

To my mind, this scene fits the profile of the disgusting conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, and the lurid torture photos at Abu Ghraib. When do we citizens arise and demand a country we can be proud of again?

Gail Murray

Hundreds nabbed in raid
11:08 AM EST on Wednesday, March 7, 2007
By Karen Lee ZinerJournal Staff Writer
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Ana Cornejo abandoned her sewing machine at 8 a.m. yesterday as immigration agents from around the country swept through a textile plant that reportedly manufactures military gear for U.S. soldiers, detaining hundreds of illegal workers and the plant’s owner and three top managers.
Chaos ensued as people fled for the exits, Cornejo said.
“They said, ‘Don’t run, don’t run,’ ” Cornejo said. “My friend is seven months pregnant. She ran and then fell. She was crying and crying and she felt pain — she was bleeding. The ambulance came and took her.”
Other workers described people bumping into sewing machines and tables in an effort to escape arrest and almost-certain deportation for being in the country illegally.
Early estimates put the figure at around 300 people detained at the Michael Bianco Inc. textile plant at 89 West Rodney French Blvd. Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Boston, said last night that number “is still evolving” as the processing of detainees continued.
She said detainees who were found to be in the country illegally were being brought to Fort Devens for processing that will lead to deportation proceedings.
The raid followed an 11-month undercover criminal investigation, according to statements from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston.
The plant’s owner, Francesco Insolia, and managers “knowingly and actively” recruited increasing numbers of illegal workers to meet demands of multiple Department of Defense contracts since 2001. In 2004, the company received an $82-million defense contract, according to allegations in the affidavits filed in support of search warrants executed yesterday. More than 500 people work at the Bianco plant.
Workers who waited outside after proving their legal status said Bianco textiles manufactures backpacks, ammunition pouches and other gear for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and that government inspectors often visit the plant. Bianco textiles also specializes in the manufacture of handbags and other fine leather goods.
The affidavits allege that Insolia, 50, of Pembroke, Mass., “intentionally seeks out illegal aliens because they are more desperate to find employment and are thus more likely to endure severe workplace conditions he has imposed.”
Those conditions allegedly include “docking of pay by 15 minutes for every minute an employee is late; fining employees $20 for spending more than 2 minutes in the restroom and firing for a subsequent infraction; providing one roll of toilet paper per restroom stall per day, typically resulting in the absence of toilet paper after only 40 minutes per day; fining employees $20 for leaving (the) work area before break bell sounds; and fining employees $20 for talking while working and firing for a subsequent infraction.”
Along with Insolia, payroll manager Ana Figueroa, 40, and Dilia Costa, 55, both of New Bedford, and office manager Gloria Melo were charged with conspiring to encourage or induce illegal aliens to reside in the United States, and conspiring to hire illegal aliens.
Louis Torres, 45, of New Bedford, was charged separately with “the knowing transfer of fraudulent identification documents,” after being arrested at a nearby record shop.
Insolia was released after his court appearance and declined comment.Insolia’s lawyer, Inga Bernstein, said, “The whole story will come out, and at that point it will be a very different scenario.”
The raid was part of “Operation United Front,” a Homeland Security effort that targets employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, said Homeland Security spokesman Richard Rocha. He said ICE agents flew in from around the country to take part.
“We want to make sure that employers know that hiring people who are illegal is not something ICE will tolerate,” Rocha said at the scene. “We also want to make the point that each of these illegal workers are taking jobs away from people in New Bedford.”
Rocha said ICE agents were “talking to each one of the people who have been detained” to determine whether they were indeed in the country illegally, and therefore subject to deportation. Asked about the many mothers who had infants or young children, Rocha said, “we’re not going to leave any child on the doorstep” and would make determinations on a “case-by-case” basis.
Behind the police tape across from the barricaded building, workers who were able to prove their legal status joined relatives and friends of workers who were still detained inside shivered for hours while waiting for information. Some sobbed and clung to one another. Others fumed.
“The people are working there, they are not stealing or doing drugs. They are not trying to do anything bad to the country,” said Rosalina Jovel, a Salvadoran immigrant and U.S. citizen who said she came to stand in support of the many people she knew who worked at the textile plant. “There are so many criminal people around, dealing drugs … why don’t they go hunt them?”
Ann Sheehan, a volunteer advocate for Mayans (Guatemalan Indians) in New Bedford, took umbrage at law enforcement.
“If people think this is part of the war on terror, they’re sadly mistaken. I don’t understand. I don’t know why we’re spending our time and money this way. This isn’t the war on terror, it’s just terror itself. It’s social terror.”
Advocacy workers rushed to the scene to deliver prescription medications for detained plant workers who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes and epilepsy.
Acting on information that most of the detained workers were women, the advocacy group representatives said they were working through New Bedford public school authorities and contacting day-carecenters and private day-careoperators, to ensure that children would be safely retrieved.
“Our main concern is for the children,” said Helena Marques, executive director of the Immigrants Assistance Center. “My concern is that a lot of people [arrestees] are women, and they have children. We are trying to get information to the schools and day-care centers.”
The bigger worry was that spouses who might also be in the country illegally “are so afraid of immigration — that might keep the fathers from picking up their children,” Marques said.
“The other thing is that we’re in weather that’s 9 below zero. These children are walking home — who are these children going to be walking home with?”
Marques and Bethany Toure, of New Bedford Community Connections, which works with the state’s Department of Social Services, said a local church had opened as a resource center “to help people talk about their fears in this situation, and to answer questions.”
Lawyer Ondine Sniffin, who works for Catholic Social Services, was among the advocates who rushed to the scene. She was allowed in the building, “but not very far,” she said.
“They are not getting access to legal counsel, even though they’ve requested it,” Sniffin said. “That is one of the many travesties.”
Sniffin said she was denied access to her client, whom she said is a Salvadoran woman and mother of a U.S. citizen child who is 3 years old.
Paula DaSilva, a 23-year-old New Bedford woman whose job at Bianco includes stitching Velcro onto ammunition pouches, said a company secretary announced the raid over a loudspeaker.
Said DaSilva, “It happened real fast.”
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement 24-hour toll-free number for families and friends seeking information about detainees is (866) 341-3858.